Southwest Hawaii Expansion Being Delayed by Boeing 737 MAX Crisis

The ongoing 737 MAX crisis is putting the brakes on Southwest Airlines’ continued expansion into the Hawaiian market. Yesterday, Southwest announced that it was taking its 737 MAX flights out of its schedule until 1 October 2019Previously the 737 MAX flights were removed through to 2 September 2019.

Earlier this month there was widespread optimism that the 737 MAXs would be flying again sooner rather than later. That optimism has since dropped away.

Southwest Boeing 737MAX
Southwest’s Sacramento and San Diego flights to Hawaii are indefinitely postponed. Photo: Flickr user Paul Thompson

And just this week the FAA discovered issues with the 737 MAX’s flight controls.

CBS Sacramento is now reporting that Southwest flights from Sacramento and San Diego to Hawaii are indefinitely postponed. These proposed flights first went on sale back in March 2019. But now, the ongoing 737 MAX grounding means Southwest has stopped adding new routes and is busy trying to plug the gaps in its existing schedules.

Southwest says it is taking 150 flights a day out of its current schedule as a result of the 737 MAX grounding.

The Sacramento and San Diego flights were the key priorities in the next stage of Southwest’s Hawaii strategy. Until some certainty exists regarding the 737 MAX, Southwest is being cautious and halting growth, trying to ensure reliability and stability on its existing services.

Southwest services to Hawaii

It’s a setback for Southwest’s inroads into Hawaii. The first scheduled Southwest flight into Hawaii was just four months ago when flights between Oakland and Honolulu commenced.

southwest 737 max hawaii
A Southwest Boeing 737-8. Photo: Tomas Del Coro via Flickr

The low cost carrier is operating twice daily services from Oakland to Honolulu and a daily direct service to Kahului on Maui.

The mainland flights have proved popular and have been generally well received. The infamous ‘Southwest Effect’ has increased capacity and driven down fares by approximately 17% between Hawaii and the US mainland. This is great for passengers, but not so great for legacy carriers on the route.

Southwest also began inter island flights in Hawaii, competing with the established Hawaiian Airlines. Southwest has been pretty happy with how these flights are going. In May 2019, their CEO, Gary Kelly, said the inter island services were surpassing expectations and going “extremely well.”

Gary Kelly
Southwest CEO Gary Kelly is pretty happy with his Hawaiian services. Photo: Wikimedia

Issues with inter island services?

Some of the feedback we’ve received at Simple Flying suggests that not all Hawaiian locals are as thrilled as Mr Kelly is about the performance of the inter island services. The reliability of the inter island services has been questioned, and delays of several hours are not uncommon, particularly later in the day. This is attributed to two reasons. 

Firstly, there are no spare Southwest aircraft sitting around at Honolulu Airport. If one plane has a problem, that has a big knock on effect with cancellations and delays.

One correspondent to Simple Flying said;

“Southwest has had massive 6+ hour delays on their inter island flights several times since starting service. They want to keep the flights to the mainland on time so they screw over local travellers. You want to be stuck outside at Kona airport for 6 hours in the heat of the afternoon?”

southwest 737 max hawaii
Who wants to be stuck at Kona Airport for 6 hours? Photo: Ken Lund via Flickr

Secondly, these Southwest inter island flights are crewed by mainland Southwest crew during their layovers. Crew fly in from Oakland on day one, rest overnight in Honolulu, work inter island services the following day, overnight again in Honolulu and work a flight back to Oakland on the third day.

With mandated rest times, the focus seems to be on keeping the flights to the mainland on track at the expense of local inter island services. Another correspondent to Simple Flying said;

“The problem arises with the perceived unreliability of their schedule. When the 4th and last WN flight in late afternoon ends up running 4 to 6 hours late, and local residents are accustomed to having options on Hawaiian, they vow to go back to Hawaiian. It’s a local trend. And because Southwest has no other interline agreements, best they can do is refund the fare and send them to Hawaiian to see if any seats are available.”

In comparison to Southwest Airlines, local incumbent Hawaiian Airlines has a vastly superior inter island frequency and back up aircraft available at Honolulu. Local passengers who were initially supportive of Southwest’s inter island services have one six hour delay out at Kahului and are heading straight back to Hawaiian Airlines.

Southwest might be facing challenges on its Hawaii services from two fronts; the 737 Max grounding and disaffected local residents.

“Hawaiian (Airlines) is a class act company. The entire product – the flight, the in flight service, the on time record, all of it are going to make the difference in the long term. People will see the glaring difference between Hawaiian and southwest, and as usual, Hawaiian Airlines will come out on top.”

Aggravated local passengers could be just as damaging to Southwest’s immediate expansion plans in Hawaii as the ongoing 737 MAX crisis.

Something for CEO Gary Kelly and Southwest’s management to think about perhaps?